The movie is an uneasy blend of the straightforwardly naturalistic and the whimsically fantastic, a combination that probably worked better on the page than it does on the screen.
Among the film genres that populate a typical summer of releases, one reliable staple is that of the adorably sick child and the beautifully grieving parents. This year’s entry is The 9th Life of Louis Drax, directed by Alexandre Aja and adapted by Max Minghella from a bestselling novel by Liz Jensen. Unfortunately, the movie is an uneasy blend of the straightforwardly naturalistic and the whimsically fantastic, a combination that probably worked better on the page than it does on the screen.
Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is a precocious, smart-mouthed, wise child with a history of serious health scares, the ninth of which has put him in the coma ward. Louis narrates much of the film from his comatose state, and he’s clearly meant to be endearing, but I found him annoying, although more due to the lines he is given than for the actor’s performance. The mystery at the heart of the film is why an apparently normal child has had so many near-fatal accidents in his relatively brief life.
Louis’s mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) is the very picture of dedication, and she even dresses the part of a 1950s mother (one of the many discontinuities in this movie), although the story seems to be taking place in the present (judging by the flat screen computers in the hospital and the scrubs worn by the hospital personnel). Louis’s father Peter (Aaron Paul), on the other hand, seems to be a shiftier character, and suspicion soon falls on him as the cause of Louis’s most recent “accident”: a fall from a high cliff followed by a lengthy underwater submersion.
Coma specialist Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan, perhaps the least convincing movie doctor ever) takes a particular interest in Louis’s case, and before long, in his mother, as well. Can you say conflict of interest? Pascal becomes so close to Louis that he is able to receive telepathically transmitted messages from the boy, leading to the film’s big reveal, which doesn’t come as much of a shock to anyone who has seen one of these movies before.
The other key player in Louis’s story is his psychiatrist Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt), who gives an enjoyable performance as perhaps the one person in the film who doesn’t fall for the boy’s attempts at manipulation. In fact, he thinks Louis may be self-harming as a ploy to seek attention, and he’s also key in revealing the solution to the mystery (which is laid out as straightforwardly as the conclusion to a Thin Man movie).
There’s a whimsical, fanciful element in The 9th Life of Louis Draw (Louis’s comatose state is enlivened by animations of sea creatures, appropriate for a boy who loves reading Jacques Cousteau), but the film never quite pulls it off. The resort to telepathy for key plot points feels like a cheat, while the location of the action is as confusing as the time period: We get some indications the main action takes place in San Francisco (although the only clear establishing shot comes late in the film), but there’s little specific to that location in the story—while most of the film was shot in Vancouver.
There’s one other major disconnect that American viewers will immediately identify. In the novel, the story takes place in France (also home of director Aja), which, of course, has a system of national health care—as does England, home of the novel’s author and the film’s screenwriter. America has quite a different system, if I may presume to dignify it with that title. Anyone who has ever experienced health care in this country knows that every little thing comes with a price tag attached, and hospital personnel often seem more interested in how you will pay your bill than in what brought you to the hospital in the first place. Failing to address these issues in the script gives the whole film an ungrounded feel, as if it is taking place on some Fantasy Island where the only currencies required are good intentions and magical fairy dust. | Sarah Boslaugh